Every speech has to start somewhere, and one of the most common questions we hear from students in a public speaking course is, “Where do I start?” Well, your public speaking teacher will definitely give you some specific guidelines for all the speeches in your class, but all speeches start with the same basic foundation: speech purpose, topic selection, and audience analysis.
The very first question you’ll want to ask yourself is this: what is the basic purpose of the speech you’re about to give? As far back as the ancient Greeks, scholars of public speaking have realized that there are three basic or general purposes people can have for giving public speeches: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain.
The first general purpose people can have for public speaking is to inform. When we use the word “inform” in this context, we are specifically talking about giving other people information that they do not currently possess. Maybe you’ve been asked to tell the class about yourself or an important event in your life. For example, one of our coauthors had a student who had been smuggled out of a totalitarian country as a small child with her family and fled to the United States, seeking asylum. When she told the class about how this event changed her life, she wasn’t trying to make the class do or believe anything, she was just informing the class about how this event changed her life.
Another common type of informative speech is the “how-to” or demonstration speech. Maybe you’ll be asked to demonstrate something to the class. In this case, you’ll want to think about an interesting skill that you have that others don’t generally possess. Some demonstration speeches we’ve seen in the past have included how to decorate a cake, how to swing a golf club, how to manipulate a puppet, and many other interesting and creative speeches.
The second general purpose that public speakers can have is to persuade. When you persuade another person, you are attempting to get that person to change her or his thought process or behavior. In the first case, you’re trying to get someone to change her or his opinion or belief to what you, as the speaker, want that person to think or believe after the speech. For example, maybe you belong to a specific religious group that doesn’t always get the greatest press. In your speech, you could try to tell your classmates where that negative press is coming from and all the good that your religious sect does in the world. The goal of this speech isn’t to convert people, it’s just to get people to think about your group in a more positive fashion or change their thought process.
The second type of persuasive speech, the more common of the two, is to get someone to change her or his behavior. In this case, your goal at the end of the speech is to see your audience members actually do something. When we want an audience to do something at the end of the speech, we call this a “call to action” because we are actually asking our audience members to act on what we’ve said during the speech. For example, maybe you’re an advocate for open-source (or free) software packages. So you give a speech persuading your classmates to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org). In your speech, you could show how the cost of Microsoft Office is constantly rising and that OpenOffice offers the exact same functionality for free. In this case, the goal of your speech is to have your classmates stop using Microsoft Office and start using OpenOffice—you want them to act.
The third general purpose people can have for public speaking is to entertain. Some speeches are specifically designed to be more lighthearted and entertaining for audience members. Quite often these speeches fall into the category of “after-dinner speeches,” or speeches that contain a serious message but are delivered in a lively, amusing manner that will keep people alert after they’ve finished eating a big meal. For this reason, most speeches that fall into the “to entertain” category are either informative or persuasive, but we categorize them separately because of reliance on humor. Effective speeches in this category are often seen as the intersection of public speaking and stand-up comedy. The speeches themselves must follow all the guidelines of effective public speaking, but the speeches must be able to captivate an audience through interesting and funny anecdotes and stories. Some common entertaining speech topics include everything from crazy e-mails people have written to trying to understand our funny family members.
Not all entertaining speeches include large doses of humor. Some of the most memorable speakers in the professional speaking world fall into the entertaining category because of their amazing and heart-wrenching stories. The more serious speakers in this category are individuals who have experienced great loss or overcome enormous hurdles to succeed in life and who share their stories in a compelling style of speaking. Audience members find these speakers “entertaining” because the speakers’ stories captivate and inspire. In the professional world of speaking, the most commonly sought after form of speaker is the one who entertains an audience while having a serious message but delivering that message in a humorous or entertaining manner.